Despite its generous bonuses, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) struggles to recruit pilots and retain those it has trained. According to the Deputy Chief of Staff, General David Allvin, the USAF would lack 1,600 to achieve its objectives. Hence the force is toying with the idea of using autonomous piloting solutions based on artificial intelligence algorithms to address this shortage.
On July 13, a company, Merlin Labs, announced that it had agreed with the U.S. Air Force to test autonomous pilot technology on board a C-130J Hercules transport plane.
The eight-figure deal aims to give the C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, the most used cargo platform in the fleet, autonomy. Merlin will assist the Air Force in enhancing safety and operational flexibility, much like its civilian uses.
A software called “Merlin Pilot” would replace the co-pilot of the transport plane. Clearly, and beyond the classic function of autopilot, which makes it possible to maintain the heading and the altitude during a flight, Merlin Pilot would be able to pilot the plane, including during turbulence, from takeoff to landing.
This software will receive the same sensor information as the pilot, although it will receive it directly as data rather than reading it from instrument displays.
Such a system may not have a literal “hand on the wheel” to control roll, pitch, and yaw but is designed to control the aircraft, bypassing the physical interface directly electronically. Alternatively, installing a Merlin Pilot will mean adding servos and other controls on older aircraft where there is no digital control by wire.
Which, explains Merlin Labs, could pave the way for entirely autonomous flights, that is to say, without a crew. But we are not there yet since this software cannot detect obstacles, such as birds in the sky or cars on a track. This means that the presence of a pilot is still necessary to regain control if necessary. In addition, it is required to consider the exchanges between the plane and the air traffic controllers, which such a system cannot [yet] do.
Philosophically, the company believes that air traffic control must be able to interact with an autonomous aircraft, said Matthew George, CEO of Merlin Labs, in a column of Popular Science.
In addition to mechanical control of the aircraft, the Merlin Pilot will be able to receive and execute verbal commands from air traffic control services. According to George, the technology is configured to respond to communication like a human pilot but with a somewhat funny voice.
As of right now, the machine learning-based Merlin Pilot is able to support speech data from a variety of international air traffic controllers. This training was carried out to enable the AI to reply appropriately and autonomously rather than just adhering to a predefined script of fixed speech rules. This makes it more like Alexa or Siri than a bot that reads a pre-recorded script.
If the company delivers as anticipated, two piloted aircraft will be able to fly with just one, and eventually, single-seat aircraft may be able to fly entirely autonomously.
George says that even at this early stage, a human pilot can keep an eye on what the Merlin Pilot is doing in the same way a flying instructor keeps an eye on a trainee pilot.
One of the options is a tablet-type device where a human pilot can control the system, and if the need arises, he can take control of the aircraft, says George.
KC-46A Pegasus tanker co-pilot may also go
In addition, without specifying how it intends to do so, the Air Mobility Command (AMC), the command of the USAF dedicated to air transport and in-flight refuelling, indicated this week that it was also planning to reduce the crews of its KC-46A Pegasus tanker aircraft. Not for human resources reasons but, curiously, for safety reasons.
Thus, for potentially dangerous missions, the crew of a KC-46A would be reduced to two airmen (the pilot and the refuelling operator). However, the AMC is not considering replacing the co-pilot with an artificial intelligence algorithm, at least not yet.
Be that as it may, reducing the crew of a KC-46A would make it possible to limit the human losses in the event of a conflict in the Indo-Pacific insofar as AMC considers that tanker aircraft would be the most vulnerable against enemy missiles. Curious reasoning, to say the least since such an initiative would undermine flight safety, which has not failed to be criticized on social networks. The solution would rather be to strengthen and protect these planes.